Annotated Confession, November 2016

This morning during Morning Prayer, I heard and said the confession with different ears, as one is prone to do in liminal times such as when one’s heart feels broken or constricted. In light of an election that nominated someone who condones violence, normalizes bigotry, and epitomizes hypocrisy, as an American, I feel the need to repent.* As a middle class person and someone who benefits from white privilege (even as a registered Cherokee), my socio-economic demographic largely voted for Donald Trump. I have heard more than one voice say that if our “group” wants to generalize, say, all Muslims as terrorists or all blacks as thugs, then others can likewise generalize all whites–especially all white Christians–as racist, homophobic, etc., etc. It appears then that I, too, have condoned violence, bigotry, and hypocrisy, among other things; it appears that I, too, have not respected the dignity of all human beings, which is in direct contradiction to my baptismal vows that I re-affirm regularly.

Before I turn to my neighbor to exchange the peace, and certainly before I presume to come to the Lord’s table, I confess my sins against God and my neighbor.

Most merciful God,

Yes, God, you are merciful. There is little, if anything, we have done to deserve your compassion or forgiveness, yet humanity continues to exist.

we confess that we have sinned against you

Me, myself, and I–as a whole, broken person–have sinned. I have turned away from you, in spite of you.

in thought, word, and deed,

I turn away from you in what I think, what I say, and what I do. It may not be obvious to others when I sin; it might be known only between you and me. It is known, though, and these sins are not right intentions, right speech, nor right actions. They are mine, and they are wrong.

by what we have done,

Yes, I take full responsibility for my actions and hold myself accountable to them.

and by what we have left undone.

How many times has my silence and/or inaction kept your mercy and grace from being manifest in the world or allowed hate to have a louder voice?

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

The heart was considered the seat of the will, if I remember my Old Testament studies. The heart is considered the seat of courage. The heart is the seat of our love and compassion. None of these have I wholly given to YOU.

we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

My head hangs heavily, and my heart constricts at the gravity of the truth of this statement. Yet I say it, for it is true. There is no qualifier for who is my neighbor or who should be excluded as my neighbor. It’s not even “others,” because to presume “other” is to exclude from our “group.” Love my neighbors. Love everyone around me. Everyone. I haven’t loved them as myself. I don’t even know if I love myself as you would have me be loved.

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

I am sorry, and I humbly turn toward you, O God. I cannot simply say that I am sorry; I have to show it. I have to do something about it. It’s what I’ve been taught, and it’s what I teach my children. This repentance isn’t shameful: it is honest. It hurts because it reminds me that I have been wrong in my ways, that I have made bad choices: wrong because I let fear or anger govern my decisions, bad because they send ripples of negative consequences into the world, and I may never know the extent of the damage done. I cannot undo what I have done. With humility I can only move forward. I choose yet again to move toward God first; then I can move into right action.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,

In the most merciful act imaginable yet never fully conceivable by my finite being, you already showed us how to give our whole heart by giving yours. Let me never forget or take for granted the abundance of your love and grace. For the sake of all that is good and holy, let me not disgrace the worth of your sacrifice.

have mercy on us and forgive us,

I see what I have done. I realize what you have done and what you continue to do for us who turn to you. Mercifully, you grant us life eternal, relentlessly allowing us to return to you when we have fallen away.

that we may delight in your will,

With your mercy and forgiveness, there is joy to be had. That joy is deep and wide when our will is aligned with yours. This joy doesn’t promise riches or ease, but it promises a fullness and richness of heart that is only known by, with, and in YOU. I want that wholeness in my life. I may not even realize that I actually yearn for it.

and walk in your ways,

With your mercy and forgiveness, I will not only feel your joy but also walk in your way, doing the things that are right and good not only for myself but also for all of Creation.

to the glory of your Name.

What I do for you gives YOU the glory. I may be praised for doing good, but we both know that without your mercy and forgiveness, your love and guidance, I’m headed toward destruction and death. All glory is yours, O God. Thank you for sharing it with me, and help me carry it forward with both hands and all of my heart.

Amen.

Again, I say, “Amen,” as I take care of myself and family with love, as I listen intently to as many as I can, and as I stand strong as a woman of God striving to do all that I can in love of God, neighbor, and myself . . . with God’s help.

I am only one voice among many, one heart in the multitude, but I stand with a promise to love.

Love trumps hate.

 

* This list is not all-inclusive, I know. I also know there are those who voted for Donald Trump for many reasons: for a change to shake up the government establishment, for his anti-abortion stance, for his appeal to the common man, for his Republican nomination, for his not being the controversial Hillary Clinton . . . for these and other reasons. What he represented throughout the campaign, however, spoke to fear-mongering and to belittling (and that word seems too kind) much of humanity and creation. From my perspective, our collective voice did not vote for love of God and all of Creation in this election. What seemed to win is a legitimization of exclusion, oppression, and disregard for others, and it is for this which I confess.

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O God, You are my God

Exodus 3:1-15 | Psalm 63:1-8 | 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 | Luke 13:1-9

You may have heard about Trinity Cathedral’s new offering Insights, a series of lectures and talks highlighting some of America’s leading religious writers and theologians. There are two more coming up in April that I hope to make it to, but I was able to go to the one on February 18th when Diana Butler Bass was the speaker. Bass has written nine books on American religion, and after holding positions at universities and as a columnist, her bio at the back of the book describes her now as an “independent scholar.” She’s gone rogue, I guess you could say, not because she’s any less grounded in her faith but I’m guessing it’s because how she understands religion and spirituality today isn’t necessarily fitting into a tidy, traditional category in the academy. In fact, her most recent book Grounded is subtitled Finding God in the World / A Spiritual Revolution because she thinks there is a spiritual revolution afoot. That revolution is intricately tied to finding God in the world, and the God we encounter in the world might be quite different from the God we have been taught to believe in.

Maybe she’s preaching somewhere this Sunday or maybe it is, as she said, her favorite Old Testament story, but Bass specifically spoke about Moses and the burning bush. I hate to reduce all of what she said to one takeaway, but a point she emphasized about Moses’ encounter with God was that even though Moses met God on holy ground, Moses’ understanding of where a deity was located was very much based on an understanding of a world where heaven is above, separate from earth. Whatever Moses’ awe and wonder and curiosity, there is fear because God came down to earth. While Moses does question God’s instruction and shows a reluctance to do what God is telling him to do, there’s not really any question about the fact that Moses is going to do what the great I AM is telling him to do. There is a sense of understood obedience, and it’s no wonder that he was obedient, given the show of power and might God provided and the dire consequences God subsequently showed for those who did not cooperate. There’s a sort of do-things-God’s-way-or-else understanding of God.

Paul in First Corinthians affirms such an understanding of God, reminding the Corinthians that “God was not pleased with most of (their ancestors)” who were following Moses and that “they were struck down in the wilderness.” Trying to bring a sense of order to his church plants, it makes perfect sense that Paul would appeal to the authority of tradition and the power of fear. A top-down theology, like a hierarchy, is pretty easy to understand, and it’s easy to maintain so long as everyone falls into their place. If they step out of line, they might get struck down, or they could be cast out. The consolation that the believers will not be tested beyond their strength can still come across as a bit of warning. To be safe, all should be upright and blameless.

If we have grown up with religion telling us what to believe about God and what to do based on those beliefs or else suffer punishment and/or eternal damnation, there is no wonder that our understanding of God is tightly woven with fear and judgment.

So when I read and hear Jesus’s parable about a man telling his gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” what I hear is the litany of my own shortcomings, a lifetime of criticisms real and imagined. My inner critic or what Brené Brown calls the “gremlins” seize the opportunity to remind me how unworthy I am. I’ll never amount to much. I’m just as bad as the worst of the sinners, destined to perish. I’ll just get my handbasket, and you’ll probably need one, too, for where we’re going, where we deserve to go.

This tape I have playing in my head about my unworthiness and my inability to do anything good enough is based upon a judgmental, conditionally loving God. My striving for perfection is a fear of disapproval, that not everyone and especially not God will be pleased. But God’s love is unconditional. “God is faithful,” Paul repeats more than once, and I believe he says it with sincerity.

God is faithful and steadfast. God keeps the covenant. God has given us this wild and beautiful life, has been with us all the while, and we are good.

With life, God has given us choice. Yes, we will all perish; our mortality is certain. Yes, we get off track from God’s will and don’t make the best choices. We perish and die like everyone else, as Jesus said, unless we repent. Whether or not we perish in our life in Christ is up to us.

Repenting does not mean that we call to God and God turns toward us. When we repent, we turn toward God who has been perfectly God all along. When we repent, we see our shortcomings perhaps as God sees them: how they did not celebrate life, did not share in love, and did not glorify God. Most often we are sorry and ashamed, but God sees our repentance as well and good and looks forward to what we will make from our time of fertilization and toward the fruits we will bear. Our very repentance affirms hope and goodness in the world and ourselves, let alone our eternal life in God. This God tending to me is close and personal and knows the intense, intimate joy of mutual love: the psalm we read today conveys a thing or two about such a relationship.

The fastest growing sector in America’s religious landscape is the non-religiously affiliated folks, but it does not mean that these people do not believe in something greater than themselves. They might encounter their “higher power”–whom we call God–while sitting in a kayak on Lake Ouchita, while watching the sun set over the golf course, or while holding the washcloth on their loved one’s feverish forehead. These can be powerful Spirit-filled experiences. I think we would agree that God is very much present at those times, and we can affirm such spiritual experiences within our religious tradition.

But there are those who have no context for a religion that incorporates their spirituality, their personal experiences of God.

Rather than have to “buy in” to a particular religion, especially one that is going to tell them how to encounter God, they prefer to go rogue and encounter Spirit on their own terms. These folks often identify as “spiritual but not religious.”

I understand this perspective, especially as one who broke away from the tradition of my upbringing. What I know of God is greatly shaped by my experiences. I consider myself fortunate to have found a religious tradition in The Episcopal Church that makes sense to me both religiously and spiritually, a tradition that encourages me to continue to ask questions to learn and grow, drawing from a long history of tradition and the deep well of Scripture.

What I also know is the struggle of digging deep and the stench of manure flung far and wide as I grow in faith. There have been parts of me that have died in the wilderness, branches that have been cut down by choices I have made. I take for granted that I am here at all until something happens, like a man looking at me through tired eyes and tears, telling me God has saved his life twice in the past week from being cut down. He looks at me and cries, “Why?” We keep talking, and he’s sure that God has a purpose for him because God won’t just let him die. I pray with him, and he raises his hands in prayer, turning his head up toward God, I presume. I bow my head in reverence. This is a holy moment. Here and now. The man left in hope, in hope that he still has fruit to bear.

We have the tremendous challenge, responsibility, and opportunity to proclaim God’s presence in the world. This might mean each of us has to go rogue in some sense, too, departing from existing norms to break into the freedom of a life lived for and with God. Living into our relationship with God through the Body of Christ, it is up to us not only to recognize God in the unsung glories and small miracles of everyday life but also to recognize and call out when we turn away from God individually and corporately. It is up to us to give witness to the presence of God in our sufferings, when that manure is hitting the fan, when we’re still deep in the wilderness, and the hope of resurrection seems far off. It is up to us to teach what we have learned about life in this world when lived in relationship with Jesus Christ and with one another.

What I’ve learned and what you’ve learned in the ongoing story of our faith enlivens our religious tradition and breathes life into the church. The revolution is that our understanding of God is coming from the ground of our being, from our experiences, rather than us understanding God solely from what we’ve been told. God only knows where it leads us, but as long as we keep turning toward God and seeking God, as long as we grow in the way of Jesus, the only baskets we’ll need are those to harvest our fruit.

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On Being Grounded and Getting Oriented

Zephaniah 3:14-20 | Canticle 9 | Philippians 4:4-7 | Luke 3:7-18

If you think on it a moment, I bet you can think of people who seem as flighty as a helium balloon–not just free spirits who at least have some sense of who they are but people who truly seem to have not even one foot planted in reality. That’s no one here, of course.

On the contrary, we also know people–some people we probably hold quite dear, who are grounded and sure-footed in this world. These people tend to know who they are, where they come from, what they stand for, and often they have a pretty clear sense of what their purpose in life is. If we’re not one of these people ourselves, we may be working to get there. It’s not bad work.

Whether or not we have a firm foundation, when we approach someone or something, we come as who we are, even if we are sometimes the flighty one. Who we are is a mixture of all that our lives have taught us and the circumstances we’ve been born into. Who we are is precious and unique; individually, our worldview, our perspective, is shaped by what we know. In our tradition we say that Scripture, tradition, and reason shape our theology, how we understand God. Similarly, several factors come into play to create the context for our worldview, how we understand and relate to the world around us.

In this crowd here today, we’d be hard-pressed to find people who have exactly the same perspectives. We’d come close, but there would be nuances. We’d be more likely to find others with completely different viewpoints but who are no less firmly grounded in their sense of being, especially in their love of Christ. That’s one of the beauties of our common worship.

—-

Just because we’re grounded, even in our love for God and God’s love for us, it doesn’t mean we’re perfect.

“You brood of vipers!” John calls his gathered crowd.

I’m sure it sounded harsh to them, too. John the Baptist had a crowd who assembled to be baptized. They heeded his call to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. These are presumably good people, people who have heard something in John’s message that led them to this moment. Did they really deserve to be berated?

Not necessarily, but John warrants no apology. The Baptist’s admonition is a verbal slap in the face to WAKE UP! There’s urgency and necessity. A matter of life and death.

He calls out to the brood to jar them, to awaken the one lost in the clouds, carried away on every whim; the one so grounded and steeped in tradition that the footing has become shackled and immobile; the one planted in infertile soil, kept alive by synthetic fertilizers of the latest fad, the quickest fix, and empty promises; and the one buried into the ground by shame, guilt, and fear. And there are others still.

Surely it’s by the grace of God that they came to John at all, and he has to keep their attention, catch them while there’s a chance of waking them up. For asleep most of us are no better than vipers, bound to the ground with no footing, venomous, ready to strike, and a threat to those around us. The poison is within a viper. The potential is there in them as it is in us to do great harm. Provoked or afraid, a viper–humans, too–can deal a dangerous, painful, if not fatal, strike.

Even if we think we know who we are, John demands attention. John, the last prophet of the old way and the first martyr of the new, catches us and turns our attention toward God in a way that even he may not have fully understood but that he firmly believed.

—-

So the crowd in the gospel reading today does not get baptized with water but is sort of instructed in a baptism of repentance instead. Neither ritual cleansing nor repentance were a new thing. Repentance–or teshuva–is a practice of faithful Jews, providing a way to turn away from sin, from ways that are harmful, and to turn toward God, toward one’s true self whom God created to be whole. Repentance was and still is an act that can be done by one’s self or in community.

Jewish ethicist Louis Newman, in discussion with Krista Tippett in the podcast On Being, spoke about a study with professionals–in this case pediatricians and trial court judges, people with immense power. One thing the study found, as I understand, was that some of these doctors and judges had no outlet through which to process, let alone acknowledge their mistakes or biases.

A pediatrician who prescribed the wrong treatment that proved fatal found a safe space within the study’s controlled group to acknowledge the mistake for what it was and to emphasize the need for doctors in particular to admit to mistakes so that they can learn from them.

A judge realized that the power could go to his head and knew he had to be careful since he realized the vulnerability he had in the biases he held. In his court an attractive young woman might get a lesser sentence than someone who fit his mind’s stereotypical convict if he wasn’t paying attention to his prejudices.

Newman says that looking at our shortcomings and knowing our vulnerabilities clues us into what we need to be repentant about. It’s like knowing what triggers us to release our poison, whether within ourselves or onto others. If we let our self-awareness grow dim, we risk harming others and missing the opportunity for wholeness. We don’t want to miss that chance.

Whether we are doctors or judges, tax collectors or soldiers, men or women, young or old, we ask as if with one voice, “What then should we do?”

We could band together with others and provide a safe place to share. Recovery groups do this. John the Baptist offers examples of what one might do if one is truly repentant. Share clothes and food. Charge fairly. Be content with earnings. Preparing the way for the Lord means being honest with ourselves and perhaps even seeing “those people” or “others” as our neighbors. What John says causes me to think we are to consider ourselves and one another bound not to that which makes us sick and angry but bound together in what is to come through Christ: a new covenant of love, a covenant strong enough to hold us when we fail and big enough to provide space for many perspectives.

As Christians, our wholeness is realized through Christ. Sometimes we have to change our footing and get reoriented toward the way of our Lord. We repent and begin anew, often repeatedly. I believe God makes no exceptions for those who seek God’s grace and knows the hearts of all believers in every land in a way I cannot comprehend. What this viper has a chance of doing is not controlling the other vipers in my brood or the ones next door; my chance at wholeness is to align myself with the one who brings peace and pass that goodness along.

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If I trust John has awakened me to a new way, toward Truth, then wherever or however I’m grounded, what’s important is that I’m oriented toward Christ. That gives us all reason not only to repent in all sincerity but also to rejoice.

We have reason to rejoice with our lives turned toward Christ and joyfully anticipate his arrival.

All who have humbly repented know the anguish and discomfort overcome. Repentance is our anti-venom. The peace of Christ is our calm assurance, rooted in our trust in God that all shall be well. Really. Paul was sincere in his exhortation to the Philippians to rejoice and not to worry. The more we live into our whole selves, the more keenly aware we are not only of our potential to fall into sin but also of our capacity to experience true joy. It is imperative that we keep our heading focused on Jesus.

It may only be a moment–a moment from this morning or from many years ago–but we have known joy. If it’s been too long for us, we especially need to heed John’s call and repent, letting go of that which holds us down and riddles us with dis-ease and deceit. Either in prayer or with the support of our community here, we let go of what isn’t true. With integrity we embrace our wholeness through Christ. Whoever we are in the crowd, we turn toward the one through whom our joy is made complete.

The time is drawing nigh.

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